Phoenix, AZ, September 28, 2009 -- On the eve of Game 1 of the 2009 WNBA Finals the Phoenix Mercury took the practice court at US Airways Center with an aura of confidence about them. Quite a different scene from when the Mercury entered the 2007 WNBA Finals as the wide-eyed team eager to make their mark against the mighty Detroit Shock, a veteran squad which had been there before and won before.
Of course, precocious Phoenix was able to translate that enthusiasm into inspired play on the court and their first WNBA title in 2007. Now this time around though the Mercury come into the 2009 Finals with the edge in experience and, some might say, as the favorites, while it's the Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever who must now guard against happy-to-be-there syndrome.
Phoenix has plenty of reasons to be confident besides already having one championship in the bank. The Mercury posted the best record in the regular season (23-11), overcame San Antonio and Los Angeles in previous rounds and have home-court advantage in the Finals. And the core of the team that won in '07 -- Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Tangela Smith and Penny Taylor -- is also the heart and soul of this group, and they've only grown and gotten better as players since raising the franchise's first trophy.
The most obvious example is Taurasi, who has simply been incredible in 2009, even taking her game up in the notch in playoffs when reaching greater heights didn't seem possible.
"She's playing phenomenally," said Pondexter. "There's no doubt in my mind that she should be MVP."
"I'm probably just the most focused and the most fit I've been," said Taurasi. "It helps when you play on a team that makes you better every day. And that's our biggest advantage."
But besides improvements in players' games, more tangible changes have also taken place since '07 to aid the team's resurgence, with the most obvious being that Phoenix has a new head coach in Corey Gaines, although he was an assistant on Paul Westhead's staff the year they won it all. Things actually didn't go so well in Gaines' first year at the helm, as Phoenix missed out on the playoffs entirely in 2008. But in just his second year as head coach he's gotten Phoenix back in the Finals by seemingly mastering the fast-paced style he learned under Westhead.
And as Gaines pointed out Monday, some roster changes have given the '09 version of the Mercury a slightly different identity. Temeka Johnson and Le'coe Willingham are now starters on this team, and Taylor now mainly plays guard instead of forward and comes off the bench after starting every game in 2007. Willingham has actually been the starting power forward for Phoenix for two years now, having come over from Connecticut prior to 2008, while Johnson and reserve center Nicole Ohlde, a key contributor off the pine, were both acquired during this past off-season in separate trades.
"We're probably a little deeper," said Gaines. "We have more veteran players who can play and are scorers. And they've been in situations like this before. Those types of players really come in handy in these series."
Johnson, a fifth-year veteran formerly of the Mystics and Sparks, has fit in seamlessly in Phoenix's up-tempo offense after taking over the point guard job from Kelly Miller, who was sent to Minnesota in the Ohlde deal, and played a vital and unsung role in the career-years of Taurasi and Pondexter.
"I had to convince Corey a little bit early on (about Temeka)," said Phoenix general manager Ann Meyers Drysdale. "I've known Temeka Johnson a long time, so I've always had a lot of faith in her.
"We loved Kelly Miller a lot, but we just wanted to get a true point guard in that might be able to run things and take the pressure off Cappie and Diana. And we were fortunate enough to get Temeka."
Besides trades, another good way to improve quickly is to find a standout rookie in the draft, although more often than not that method proves to be less reliable. Fortunately for the Mercury, they nailed it when they made Auburn's DeWanna Bonner the fifth overall selection.
Bonner, who recently was named Sixth Woman of the Year and is a candidate for Rookie of the Year, was invaluable off Phoenix's bench all throughout the regular season, averaging 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest. And although she struggled a bit against the talented bigs Los Angeles threw at her in the Western Conference Finals, she figures to be a key factor in the Finals.
"DeWanna coming off the bench plays on energy," said Gaines. "She rebounds and plays defense. We don't call plays for her. You've got to love a player that can score 12 points without having a play called for her."
Bonner claimed she is not nervous heading into her first Finals, but rather excited. Although she admitted her approach may be a little different from those of the veteran players on the team.
"Everything's so new to me," said Bonner. "When we won two nights ago, the veteran players were kind of calm and I was kind of excited because I'd never been here before."
"From the outside it may look similar with the core of Penny, Tangela, Cappie and myself," said Taurasi. "But there's a lot of different pieces. Coach Gaines has come in and brought his different twist with the way he game plans. There's Temeka Johnson, Ohlde, Bonner... so the team is very different in a lot of ways."
And there's one other glaring difference between this team and the 2007 squad that Pondexter would like to remind us of.
"The difference is that we haven't won a ring this year," said Pondexter.